Daimler Truck

Fiction becomes reality: Why Autonomous Trucking will elevate the transportation industry

11.12.2023 | Autonomous Driving

Our goal: Bringing autonomous trucks to the US market by 2027. In her blog post, Head of Global Autonomous Technology Group Joanna Buttler explains why she believes Autonomous Trucking represents the biggest transformation and opportunity for the transport industry and shares how fiction is becoming reality soon.

Let me take you on a little trip. No need to pack your bags. All you need is your imagination.

Envision a future in which a truck driver sits at the dinner table with her family every night. They talk about their son’s upcoming baseball game this weekend and how special it is that they will all be together. On the news, they hear about a local family who survived a potentially fatal collision. The doorbell rings. Excited, the little boy jumps up from the table. With a big smile, he says, “My new baseball bat is here before the big game.” Imagine safe, reliable, sustainable, and equitable transportation for all is a reality.  

This vision is made possible in part, because of autonomous trucking. The kid’s baseball bat has been transported over hundreds of miles by a software-controlled truck, without a driver behind the steering wheel; safely, patiently, attentively it navigated highway traffic to its destination, a hub. This is where the loaded trailer is received and recoupled to a human-operated tractor that delivers the freight to its final destination – a warehouse, a grocery store, a parcel distribution center. The autonomous truck keeps moving, no rest needed as it departs on the next mission across the country. The driver of the drayage or last mile truck ends her shift, goes home to her family. At dinner, they talk about the upcoming baseball game.

While this may sound like fiction, it is closer to reality than you may think.

Back to the present day. Together with our partner Torc Robotics, we are developing autonomous driving solutions for the highway use case. Torc has been testing autonomous-ready Freightliner Cascadia trucks in real-world applications with our freight customers for quite some time now. The self-driving trucks have a highly trained safety driver and safety conductor on board to deliver pilot customers’ freight on routes such as Phoenix, Arizona, to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

We’re conducting these pilots to gather numerous details of autonomous truck operation in real-world use cases – a critical learning opportunity on the road to commercialization. Daimler Truck and Torc Robotics aim to offer SAE Level 4 autonomous trucks for hub-to-hub operations in the United States by 2027. Let me quickly explain what this means. The fourth level refers to driving automation systems that can perform all driving tasks in a specific situation and environment – the operational design domain (ODD) - without any human intervention. Going briefly back in time: Not many may realize that we have been working on the development of autonomous driving for many decades -- starting with the Eureka Prometheus project in 1986 and continuing with the unveiling of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck in 2015. The Inspiration Truck is the world's first licensed autonomous commercial vehicle to operate on a public road in the United States. Since 2019, Daimler Truck and Torc have made significant progress in turning autonomous trucks from an idea into a reality.  Torc has demonstrated that its autonomous driving software can safely maneuver highways, surface streets, ramps, and turns at controlled intersections. We have come a long way, but there is still a lot of testing and development work ahead of us. Safety will determine market readiness.

When we launch our autonomous technology, it will possibly represent the biggest transformation and opportunity for the transport industry.

Daimler Truck has a clear roadmap with the goal to bring autonomous trucks to the U.S. market by 2027. In the specific use case between two freight hubs, the autonomous driving system takes over the entire dynamic driving task.

Autonomous Trucking brings enormous benefits for society, customers and stakeholders

When asked, “Why autonomous driving?”, one of the most cited, very personal reasons is, “saving lives”. This motivation keeps all of us going through the ups and downs of pioneering new technology. Autonomous systems can reduce the number of fatal accidents on highways. At the same time, existing jobs in an industry do not necessarily disappear, they often change – in the field of logistics, for example. Our first-launch focus is on the highway use case, taking over the driving task on long distance, monotonous routes. Humans continue to play a critical part in the supply chain where they matter the most. These areas are in the last mile delivery; in overseeing and managing the autonomous fleet; in the interaction with other humans; and in decisions and tasks that require a high degree of emotional intelligence.

The use of technology further offers logistics service providers enormous potential for efficiency as autonomous trucks only require refueling breaks and can therefore spend more time on the road. In addition, they will help to compensate for the driver shortage, which while it may fluctuate year over year, is expected to increase to 160,000 by 2030. So Self-driving trucks will help manage the ever-growing freight volume.

On top of that, we see promising market and growth opportunities for Daimler Truck, generating recurring revenue through offering a driver-as-a-service subscription model for our fleet customers. It works similar to what you know from streaming providers: the product is developed once and then scaled over many customers and units – in our case autonomous trucking miles.

Torc’s autonomous driving software has proven that it can safely navigate on highways, surface streets, ramps and turns at controlled intersections.

The key success factors of Autonomy: right use case, right technology, right partners, hand in hand with our customers

When exploring the potential of autonomous driving, it all starts with the right use case. Trying to deploy this technology in all segments, all at once, is not feasible. Those who have tried, have pivoted to focus and prioritize the deployment to a singular, initial use case.

In our hub to hub use case, the Level 4 autonomous driving system handles the entire dynamic driving task between two hub locations. This means that thousands of miles are driven completely without human input! Only on the first or last mile, drivers continue to deliver goods in manually driven trucks to or from these hubs along highways in key U.S. freight corridors like Texas. So, what is a hub? You can define it as the launch and landing location on an autonomous freight lane. Together they form an autonomous transport network which is expected to be gradually built up, starting in the southwest. This will be followed with successive expansion and eventually leading to the widespread deployment of autonomous truck routes across the entire U.S.

We believe that hub-to-hub autonomous trucking combines the most attractive, least complex use case with the right technical solution.

So, when it comes to Technology and Partnerships and as the world’s largest truck manufacturer, Daimler Truck is perfectly positioned to provide a holistic autonomous solutions platform.

It consists of the redundant vehicle platform – the autonomous-ready Freightliner Cascadia and the autonomous driving software – Torc's Virtual Driver. Add to that, physical and digital infrastructure that enables autonomous truck operations and is comprised of the autonomous transport network (i.e. hubs). Lastly, services and support around the autonomous truck operations will be needed.

This is certainly a huge, but achievable undertaking; I firmly believe not one entity can do it alone. Therefore, striking the right strategic and long-term partnerships is crucial for our success. Our role and responsibility as Daimler Truck is to enable, coordinate, and accelerate those partnerships.

Let’s dive a bit more into the tech: For safe Level 4 autonomous operations, you need redundant vehicle systems. Imagine the steering systems fails and there is no human to intervene, you will need an electronic backup.  Similar to airplanes, we have purposefully designed and built redundancy for safety-critical systems such as steering and braking. With 1,500 technical requirements, all translated into features and a second set of electronically controlled systems such as steering, braking, power network, and more, our Autonomous-Ready Cascadia sets the industry standard for autonomous systems integration. So far, we are the first in the industry to offer a scalable, powertrain-agnostic redundant autonomous vehicle platform. We refer to it as “autonomous-ready”, because it is the starting point and foundation for any Level 4 driving system.

With 1,500 technical features built in and a second set of critical systems such as steering, braking, cybersecurity and much more, the autonomous-ready Cascadia sets the industry standard for the integration of autonomous driving systems.

That leads me to the second important technical component of Autonomy: the autonomous driving system (ADS).

In simple terms this is the software that has to see (perceive the environment, near and far ahead), think (plan the next maneuver) and act (perform the driving maneuvers like lane changes, merges etc.) as good or better than a human driver.  

Torc uses several disciplines of artificial intelligence to sense the environment and to make autonomous driving decisions. For example, when it comes to perception, their AI capabilities help to detect and classify objects in challenging conditions such as low light, fog, or bad weather.

While Torc is developing the virtual driver, Daimler Truck North America integrates it with the truck. The autonomous truck will then undergo a rigorous testing and validation process (both in simulation and real world) to ensure the safety and performance of all systems before its release for market launch in 2027.

Finally, understanding current and future customer needs is key to the successful deployment. We want to enable our customers to take full advantage of the benefits of autonomous trucking in terms of cost, accessibility and ease of deployment, maintenance, and flexibility. It is essential that autonomous solutions are developed together with the customer from the start.

The next step in bringing autonomous trucks to the market is to establish how we can help support our customers to move freight efficiently. We are working with early adopters in the freight industry who are interested in our hub-to-hub model and are running autonomous pilots with Schneider Inc. and C.R. England to get a 360-degree-perspective of the comprehensive transportation ecosystem.

Since 2022, Torc has teamed up with customers to test autonomous freight transportation, e.g., with Schneider, Inc. Schneider provides freight loads for Torc’s pilot operations and unique insights on truckload freight that will help guide the development and ongoing commercialization of autonomous trucks for middle mile applications.

We also feel strongly that Daimler Truck will have a very unique, highly engineered (autonomous) product that will solve our needs from an operating cost perspective as well.

Ron Hall, Vice President of Equipment and Fuel, C.R. England

Fiction will soon become reality

I firmly believe and I am convinced that autonomous trucks will enhance everyday life. This technology is no longer fiction, but it will become reality within this decade. It has the potential to transform the transportation industry. I’m excited that my team and our partners are leading the way – at the right speed, for the right reasons, and first and foremost, with safety as our guiding principle. We are just at the beginning, so stay tuned, there’s so much more to come.

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About the author

About the author

Joanna Buttler is the Head of Global Autonomous Technology Group at Daimler Truck. In her role, she has the responsibility for leading Daimler Truck’s global autonomous technology strategy, including vehicle programs, global roll-out and partnerships. She oversees all aspects of Daimler Truck’s strategic partnerships with Waymo and the independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck, Torc Robotics, focused on the development of SAE Level 4 autonomous technology. She aligns all global autonomous activities from engineering to product strategy, and mergers and acquisitions.


Learn more on our autonomous journey on Why should driving be automated? | Daimler Truck and News & Stories - Autonomous Driving | Daimler Truck.